Local veterans star in “The Veterans Play Project”

Mixed Blood Theater and the Footprints Collective strive to create a story that authentically reflects veterans’ experiences in Minnesota.

The Veterans Play Project, created by Footprints Collective and presented by Mixed Blood, rehearses on Tuesday at Base Camp at Fort Snelling. The play tells a story of veterans and civilians living in a small Midwestern town, and is performed by a cast of both actors and veterans.

Juliet Farmer

The Veterans Play Project, created by Footprints Collective and presented by Mixed Blood, rehearses on Tuesday at Base Camp at Fort Snelling. The play tells a story of veterans and civilians living in a small Midwestern town, and is performed by a cast of both actors and veterans.

Joe Kellen

Leah Cooper’s parents were pacifists. As a kid, the closest the artistic director of the Footprints Collective ever got to the military was at peace rallies.

When Mixed Blood Theatre Artistic Director Jack Reuler gave Cooper an opportunity to put on a show, she told him she wanted to work with veterans.

“I found myself looking for some way to blend great art and letting people tell their own stories,” Cooper said.

The piece she ended up working on, “The Veterans Play Project,” is based on real stories. After interviewing more than 100 veterans about their experiences during and after their service, Cooper drafted a script that used their lives as its main source.

“Once we connected with the vets, the ones that came to our story circles were remarkably candid and kind of fearless about sharing their stories,” she said.

Cooper was compelled to make theater based in her community, taking inspiration from California’s Cornerstone Theater Company, a group she completed a five-week residency with in 2009.

Cornerstone’s model for developing theater starts with gathering stories from local citizens. Then, those community members have the chance to be cast in the play and are asked to tell those stories in a barebones way.

The company’s goal is to authentically reflect the human experience, using reality to escape the confines of fabricated plots and trained actors.

“The Veterans Play Project” worked in the same way. It features eight professional actors and 13 veterans, some of whom had never acted before.

One is Roger Ezell,  who was a medic during the Vietnam War. He’s seen a lot, but he never thought he’d get the opportunity to act in a professional production.

“I was a singer, and I had done a few community theater plays,” he said. “I was a little nervous to come do this, but everyone was so inviting and welcoming, so that didn’t last too long.”

Kirsten Stephens, who enlisted in 2002, had a background in theater before joining the military.

“You know, what’s cool about this is that it brings stories to life that people don’t necessarily want to listen to,” she said. “It’s refreshing to just be heard.”

The play takes place in the fictional Midwestern town of Smedley and follows its local veterans to examine how they grapple with life after war.

When two Hollywood filmmakers come to town and decide to make a war memorial out of a giant rock that sits in the middle of their community, the characters are forced to consider what military service means to them.

 “The Veterans Play Project” is site-specific, taking place at Fort Snelling’s Base Camp. The space provided challenges — it’s the size of an airplane hangar and includes a 28-foot rock wall.

Cooper said she thinks these obstacles ended up being beneficial — without the rock wall, the company never would have been able to add the plot point of the memorial to the center of the play.

“We decided that it wouldn’t take place in a theater,” Cooper said. “We figured that veterans and their families would feel more comfortable and excited about going to a space they know, rather than some theater they’ve never been to before.”

The project is all about enabling vets and their communities to illuminate the impact of service.

“I would say that the project is accurate about what it’s like to have these experiences,” Ezell said. “Getting the opportunity to talk about this stuff is healing for me, and I think it’ll be healing for others, too.”

Cooper said the play has helped her learn about the nuances of participating in war and has demystified distortions she’s seen in mass media.

“Their motivations for serving in the military are remarkably similar to my motivations for creating art,” she said. “They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, they want to experience the world, they want to affect the world and they want to grow personally.”

What: “The Veterans Play Project”
When: 7:30 p.m., Nov. 15-24 (3 p.m. Sundays)
Where: Base Camp, 201 Bloomington Rd., Fort Snelling
Cost: $20, or free under Mixed Blood’s Radical Hospitality policy